Commentary Magazine

Riesman and the Age of Sociology:
Critic of “Groupism” and the Zeitgeist

William saroyan once wrote a story about an ugly little man who tried to overcome his feelings of inadequacy by searching Time magazine for photographs of men as homely as himself. According to this simple criterion of worldly success, people who get their pictures not just inside, but right on the cover of Time must be veritable giants. Yet when the “giant” happens to be an American intellectual, his fellow intellectuals are less likely to identify with him than to start re-evaluating his achievements—if you are that successful, something must be wrong! There are signs that a revaluation of the work of David Riesman, who was enshrined in 1954 on Time’s cover, is already under way. Perhaps this is the moment, now that the original gloss and novelty of Riesman’s ideas are beginning to wear off just as they reach a wider audience, to take a fresh look at his methods and some of his leading themes.

Riesman’s fame rests chiefly on his first book, The Lonely Crowd, originally published in 1950 and now a best-seller in a paperback reprint. A later book, Faces in the Crowd, consists for the most part of personal interviews with an oddly assorted group of Americans, and serves to illustrate rather than document the theory of American character developed in The Lonely Crowd. The year before last the appearance of a collection of Riesman’s essays, under the title Individualism Reconsidered, became the occasion for laudatory review-articles in leading periodicals.

The enthusiastic reception of The Lonely Crowd was largely attributable to its challenging assertion of a number of things about American society that many people were beginning to sense, but had not yet succeeded in articulating clearly. In almost every decade a book appears that shatters certain prevalent stereotypes about American life by naming and pinpointing changes that haven’t yet reached the general awareness. James Burn-ham’s The Managerial Revolution, in the early 1940’s, was such a book, announcing in rather apocalyptic fashion the bureaucratization of Western political and economic life, and the increasing obsolescence of the opposition between capitalist and socialist that Marxists insisted on as the key to the understanding of modern society. But The Lonely Crowd has won greater fame than Burnham’s book because it deals with a more universal aspect of social reality than that encompassed by formal political and economic institutions.



Professionally, Riesman is a sociologist, but his work has on the whole been more warmly received by “humanist” scholars, particularly literary men and historians, than by social scientists. His highly personal tone and style, and the liveliness and immediacy with which he marshals his “data,” make a sharp contrast to the rubber-gloved handling of carefully sterilized facts that has become typical of conventional social science research. Several respectable literary critics have likened The Lonely Crowd to a good novel, while historians have been impressed by his feeling for all that is volatile in American customs and institutions. Riesman’s social-scientist critics, displaying often a trained incapacity to distinguish between questions of substance and method, grumble about his “impressionism” and concentrate their fire on his apparatus of concepts, or on the broad theory of the interdependence of character and society that provides the framework for his discussion of trends in American life.

Most of such criticism is clearly irrelevant to the central theme of The Lonely Crowd: the equation of what Riesman calls “other-direction” with modernity, his thesis that contemporary Americans, far from being the fractious individualists they like to see themselves as, are becoming docile conformists. Riesman’s threefold classification of character types—“tradition-directed,” “inner-directed,” and “other-directed”—serves him mainly as a way of ordering, rather loosely, his many penetrating comments on phenomena as diverse as the tastes in comic books of ten-year-olds and the expense-account sociability of corporation executives. The concept of “other-directedness” defines certain tendencies people have observed and complained about in quite separate spheres of life: the fading of that passionate dedication to ideals of conduct or thought acquired in childhood which was characteristic of earlier “inner-directed” generations; the loss of parental authority to children’s “peer groups”; the blanketing of leisure activities by the mass media; and the new philistinism of efforts to found a way of life on watered-down psychoanalytic notions.

Classifying friends and acquaintances as “inner-” or “other-directed” has almost become a parlor game among intellectuals, which we shall no doubt soon see being played on the lower cultural levels. Riesman’s labels bid fair to become as popular as the familiar Jungian extrovert-introvert labels, with which they are sometimes erroneously identified, and this very catchiness arouses a certain suspiciousness in one. In view of the derogatory connotations that, in spite of Riesman’s frequent disclaimers, cling to “other-directedness,” a new self-help book called “You Too Can Become Inner-Directed!” would hardly come as a surprise.

Riesman himself, however, uses his labels with a good deal of caution. Like most creators of social-psychological typologies, he is forced to qualify the distinctiveness of his types by admitting the existence of blends, sub-types, and unclassifiables. Very few of the individuals analyzed in Faces in the Crowd emerge as unambiguous instances of a single form of “direction.” Yet the inadequacies of his labeling system do not, I believe, stem solely from the fact that, as Riesman puts it, “the richness of human personality, human discontent, and human variety cannot be imprisoned within a typology.” More important, his three forms of “direction” seem to be better adapted to characterizing different styles of life and moral outlook than to describing types of character or personality structure; that is, they are better general cultural than individual psychological categories.



Riesman defines character as “the more or less permanent, socially and historically conditioned organization of an individual’s drives and satisfactions—those components of personality that . . . are learned in the lifelong process of socialization.” This is adequate enough as a general definition, but in defining a particular character type some definite content must be ascribed to the “drives and satisfactions.” Riesman’s concepts ignore a very wide range of human variability. As he himself makes plain, a person may be meek or violently aggressive, sexually repressed or uninhibited, regardless of the form of “direction” he exhibits. Even in the most minimal Freudian sense, a full account of character structure must be biographical; that is, it should trace the history of the in dividual’s basic drives—sex, aggression, self-love, etc., etc.—showing how they were shaped by childhood experiences and projected, often assuming new and unpredictable forms, into situations confronted later in life. Admittedly, most theories and typologies of character fail to do this; they begin, to borrow a metaphor of John Dollard’s, at about the thirty-yard line, assuming the existence of motives that are themselves clearly of social origin, and not built into the personality. Alfred Adler’s “striving for superiority” and Erich Fromm’s “drive for self-realization” are cases in point. At the very least, however, a character typology should describe syndromes of psychological traits: it should show how attitudes towards sex, aggression, authority, and social conformity hang together to form meaningful wholes.

The concept of the “authoritarian personality,” which has been discussed frequently by contributors to Commentary’s “Study of Man” department, comes close in its range, depth, and richness of content to meeting these standards, although its polar type, the “democratic personality,” does not, as Paul Kecskemeti and Nathan Glazer have ably shown in these pages. A comparison of the account of the authoritarian personality in the volume of that name (by T. W. Adorno, E. Frenkel-Brunswik, R. N. Sanford, and D. Levinson) with Riesman’s character types brings out the one-dimensional quality of the latter. By failing to specify any concrete content for the individual’s goals and impulses, Riesman’s three forms of “direction” leave out too much that has to be taken into account if our aim is to understand particular people rather than the broad cultural pressures weighing on them. His books are full of detailed insights into American life, but general psychological forces are rarely distinguished from their individual and highly diverse manifestations in popular slogans, norms of conduct, or aesthetic tastes.



Perhaps this is just a way of saying that Riesman is essentially a sociologist or critic of culture, rather than a “depth” psychologist. The problem of where the individual ends and society begins or, in more modish terminology, where personality ends and culture begins, is a perennial one for the social sciences. In a brilliant critique of psychological interpretations of social behavior (“Compliant Behavior and Individual Personality,” in the American Journal of Sociology, November 1952), Reinhard Bendix issues a cogent warning against “the fallacy of attributing to character structure what may be part of the social environment.” The warning seems very much to the point in the case of Riesman’s work.

Historical and sociological writings are, of course, full of descriptions of personality types. We have Max Weber’s hard-striving secularized Protestant, the prototype of Riesman’s “inner-directed” man; the Southern patriot, generous, impulsive, addicted to verbal extravagance, and obsessed with race, described by W. J. Cash in The Mind of the South; the reserved English gentleman, concealing his emotions behind an armor of punctilio or of casual eccentricity; and many others. Riesman’s “other-directed” man is a valuable addition to this gallery of types. With his craving for connoisseurship in the arts of consumption, his eagerness for the “inside dope” in politics, and his anxiety lest he be cut off from the warm flow of group approval, the “other-directed” man seems most representative of our rapidly changing mass society with its unprecedented level of material abundance.

But such personality images of particular societies or epochs do not depend on the concepts and insights of psychoanalysis, or of any other psychological theory about the genesis of individual character. They are personifications of broad cultural tendencies and are derived from moral codes, reigning ideologies, and the major themes and fashions of popular art, rather than from explorations of the inner life and largely unconscious strivings of individuals. In spite of Riesman’s frequent reliance on Freudian ideas and his occasional tendency to write as if the validity of his typology depended on the results of questionnaires and projective tests, his “other-directed” man is really less social psychology than historical portraiture of a familiar and traditional kind.

The fathers of contemporary sociology-Karl Marx, Max Weber, Emile Durkheim, Georg Simmel, G. H. Mead—stressed the influence of the group on the individual and the inseparability of the social and the psychic in their various polemics against Utilitarianism, Social Darwinism, and other brands of 19th-century individualist thought. But to these pioneer thinkers the primacy of the group was simply a brute fact to be taken into account in understanding human conduct and in evolving a viable personal or social philosophy. Today many social scientists and publicists have transformed fact into value and urge us to submit to the group, to conform to society, in order to achieve “peace of mind” or “adjustment.” What was formerly viewed as an inescapable limit to human powers is now seen as something to be desired and actively pursued. The spread of the ideology of “groupism” in education and industry are responses to the high mortality rate of fixed moral standards in our brittle and labile culture. The gap between the life-situations of parents and children encourages a reliance for guidance on presumed constants of human nature. Such concepts as “anxiety levels,” “group tensions,” “we-feelings,” and “emotional security”—which denude social life of its concrete particularity—have become the basis of child-rearing doctrines, educational philosophies, and personal guidance systems of all sorts. Much of Riesman’s work is, of course, a direct attack on this whole tendency, but insofar as he views his triad of types as psychological entities rather than as social-historical constructions—insofar, that is, as he tends to “psychologize” social reality—he falls victim to the very trend he analyzes so perceptively.



Nevertheless, Riesman’s attempt to correlate his forms of “directedness” with stages in Western history remains valuable for its suggestiveness, whether we view his types as descriptive of different modes of morality or of different character structures. Indeed, he comes close to formulating a challenging philosophy of history; so considered, his three types of ethos seem far more useful, being more closely linked to social and economic factors, than, say, Pitirim Sorokin’s classification of cultures as “ideational,” “idealistic,” and “sensate,” or Ruth Benedict’s “Apollonian” and “Dionysian” mentalities. Small pre-literate societies, largely immune to social change, provide their members with highly specific ready-made patterns of life; when such social units are disrupted, “tradition-directedness” declines and the “cake of custom” is broken. It was with this decline that the universalist religions were born, demanding of the individual not conformity to detailed rules but the cultivation of such abstract virtues as faith, hope. and charity. Similar “inner-directed” codes stressing thrift and diligent application to work emerged with the disintegration of the closely knit community life of the Middle Ages. Our high-consumption economy, with its need for group morale, stable routines of cooperation, and immediate rather than delayed gratification of material wants, now breeds “other-directed” values.

Unfortunately, Riesman’s ambitious effort to relate types of moral code to stages in economic growth and territorial and demographic expansion is developed only very cursorily in the opening chapter of The Lonely Crowd. His theory seems capable of illuminating large areas of social history, but like all such imaginative syntheses it can never be firmly and unambiguously “verified.” And so he moves on quickly from describing societies characterized by “tradition-,” “inner-,” or “other-directed” values to the seemingly easier task of applying these categories to the personality types of individuals within American society. The delusive hope is thus aroused that such a typology can ultimately be validated by subjecting enough people to a sufficient number of polls or tests.

Yet the ease with which vivid illustrations of Riesman’s types crowd into one’s mind (and into his books) tends to protect them from critical dissection. Everyone can point to a thousand and one “other-directed” tendencies in American life, but, unlike psychoanalytic notions which have also been banalized, Riesman’s categories seem to lack any specifiable meaning that is independent of particular illustrations of them. They serve mainly as sign-posts calling attention to aspects of American life which earlier concepts have ignored. Riesman’s tendency to use his categories chiefly as counters in debate—as polemical weapons—is responsible for their inadequacies as guides to a deeper understanding of contemporary America. To take full measure of their inadequacies requires a closer look at Riesman’s underlying method and style of argumentation.



Most reviewers of The Lonely Crowd assimilated Riesman’s attitude towards America to that of such conservative critics of modern culture as Ortega y Gasset and T. S. Eliot. They insisted that, despite his air of sociological objectivity, Riesman was really deploring the ascendancy of the “other-directed” man with his flabby conformist outlook and his pathetic readiness to surrender his individuality in the name of “adjustment” or “teamwork.” Riesman certainly strikes this note—the very title of the book suggests it—but he also strikes several counter-notes in celebrating the openness and mobility of American life and praising many features of our commercial mass culture. And with the publication of Individualism Reconsidered, it became increasingly plain that, far from being another Europe-oriented critic of America, Riesman was more properly to be seen as a leader of the turn towards a positive evaluation of American society and culture which has become so marked among intellectuals in recent years. He himself observes in his preface that the more recent of the essays collected in the book are more affirmative in tone than earlier ones which were written in the 1940’s.

The essays in Individualism Reconsidered range over a vast number of subjects, from the ideas of Veblen and Freud to the evolution of college football. Yet they exhibit a definite unity of tone: Riesman is always the gadfly attacking all “official” viewpoints, questioning ideas and codes that have become entrenched assumptions bound up with the status pride and the carefully guarded self-images of social groups or intellectual cliques. Among the things he attacks are the stereotypes cultivated by liberals who insist on race- or class-angling all public issues; the ritualized opposition to “McCarthyism” on the part of some academic intellectuals, who exaggerated its menace out of a perverse desire to see themselves as lonely martyrs; highbrow snobberies about Hollywood movies; the fetish that social scientists make of formal methodology; and the empty pontifications about “values” of their humanist critics.

This iconoclastic approach is explicitly stated in the essay entitled “Values in Context” that—fittingly enough—opens the book. Riesman calls his method “contextual analysis.” Its essence is to explore the social roots of ideas and values and to reveal how these roots account for the narrowness and one-sidedness of a particular outlook. Thus Riesman tries to shock whatever audience he is addressing (whether in actuality or in imagination) by challenging its central assumptions and advocating ways of looking at the world that are novel to it. His method amounts to a kind of psychoanalysis of social ideologies, employing intellectual “shock treatment” as therapy.

He goes on to detail with remarkable candor the possible abuses and evasions inherent in this approach, thus disarming the would-be critic by anticipating his objections. He is not, he maintains, a total relativist: he is absolutely opposed to destructiveness and to Plato’s proposed banishment of poets from the ideal society, and he confesses that he often “tends to become a fanatic crusading against fanaticism.” “The very position I have described to you here,” he adds, “is taken partly because I want no possibly liberating voice in the thinkers of the past to be wholly lost by destruction of the psychological roots in us enabling us to sympathize with it.”

Thus, after The Lonely Crowd was interpreted as an indictment of the egalitarian drift of American society, and the “other-directed” personality was equated with Ortega’s “mass man” and Max Weber’s “specialists without vision and voluptuaries without heart,” Riesman shifted gear. Not wishing to supply further ammunition to the conventional highbrow critics of mass democracy, he called attention in his subsequent books to some of the virtues of the “other-directeds” and some of the shortcomings of the “inner-directeds.” At this point the vagueness of these categories when detached from their polemical aim becomes evident. Riesman often appears to be more concerned with confuting and exposing stereotypes and ossified ideological formulas than with making an independent and self-sustaining contribution to social science. I do not mean to imply that this is an unworthy purpose; on the contrary, it is an important and necessary one, but its predominance in Riesman’s work accounts for the ad hoc character of his typology. It may be that he writes in what might be called the “sociological mode” mainly because he senses its greater resonance in an age when everyone talks selfconsciously about “our society” and finds it almost impossible to resist sociological categorization of experience.

Obviously, a direct search for the truth of any matter is ruled out if points of view are to be dealt with by relating them to their social milieux and then confronting them with their opposites, or with points of view more common in other times or places. Here the truth is something approached by listening to the many voices reverberating in the air, and one’s own course is always plotted with reference to them. The intellectual becomes a kind of cultural balance-wheel reacting against the Zeitgeist by calling attention to its momentary blind spots; he refrains from trying to achieve his own vision of the truth independently of prevailing ideological fashions. This is not, I submit, the method followed by great thinkers in the past.

Riesman’s choice of the Malthusian controversy to illustrate the method of “contextual analysis” is a particularly unfortunate one. He points out that Malthus’s pessimism injected a needed dose of realism into the heady Utopian atmosphere of the late 18th century, but today, when Malthus is widely admired, Riesman prefers to praise the optimism of Godwin and Condorcet as a corrective to the gloomy forebodings of contemporary prophets. Now the general disposition of an age toward either optimism or pessimism can tell us a good deal about the passions and prejudices involved in controversies such as the one which has raged over the problem of human increase for more than a century and a half. Today, however, in contrast to the 18th century, a massive amount of objective evidence can be brought to bear on the Malthusian controversy. Unlike the disagreements over aesthetic taste, over ways of spending leisure time, or even over broader life alternatives which Riesman takes up in other essays, the long-term controversy over the population problem cannot be treated simply as a matter of variant tastes and opinions distorted by ideological bias or the tyranny of fashion. On the contrary, the differences at issue can, within limits, be decided and settled by directly referring to concrete evidence. Admittedly, neo-Malthusian and neo-Godwinian popularizers usually voice exaggerated hopes or fears, but the way to correct these is by a more comprehensive and rational analysis of the factual evidence on the population problem rather than by attempting to find a compromise between clashing opinions.



It may be true that creative thought usually has its origin in polemic. Certainly, intellectual history shows that ideas often meet in turn acceptance, rejection, and eventual transformation. But too intense a concern with the dialectic of ideas in society may lead to a heightened self-consciousness about the relation of one’s own judgments to current intellectual fashions that narrows rather than broadens one’s perspective on the present. This is a particular danger in our own time, when swings of the ideological pendulum have become very rapid indeed in response to war, revolution, economic depression, and technological change.

Too many intellectuals nowadays have won a reputation for originality and profundity simply by negating yesterday’s clichés, or by “splitting the difference” between rival ideologies and presenting the synthetic result as a bold new philosophy for the times. Peter Viereck, an energetic publicist hailed as a challenging new thinker by people who ought to know better, carries this approach to extremes of absurdity: in a recent review of a book by William Buckley he calls for “a revolt against the revolt against revolt.” This is to practice what Riesman calls “counter-cyclical” thinking with a vengeance. It is hard to see how, at least at Viereck’s level, such jousting with what is taken to be the public mood of the moment can ever transcend the kind of sloganized thought it aims to correct.

If Riesman himself largely escapes the vulgarity inevitable in this obsessive bucking of the tides of fashion, it is because he possesses a genuine and acute sense of the connection between thoughts and their thinkers, between values and the social groups upholding them. He shows keen insight into the process whereby yesterday’s avant-garde causes harden into constricting ideologies and lose contact with currents of social change to which they themselves have contributed. Yet Riesman’s very sensitivity to the social and psychological ambiance of ideas and values prevents him from directly approaching these without first considering their roles in contemporary culture. His favorite adjective for points of view he wishes to encourage is “liberating,” a term that carries unmistakable overtones of psychotherapy. If one chose to view Riesman simply as a sociologist or social psychologist one could hardly object to this approach, for social science tries to explain human actions and also ideas by seeking out their social and psychological roots. But Riesman’s goals are clearly more ambitious: he is a moralist, a social philosopher, and even a critic of the arts, in addition to being a social scientist and educator.



One can find many examples of this tendency to oscillate between these various roles—a tendency that makes him a baffling figure to some of his readers. In one of the essays in Individualism Reconsidered, for instance, he mentions a talk he gave to some University of Chicago students on the movies. His aim was to shake them in their conviction that Hollywood movies were “junk,” and he did so, or tried to do so, by pointing out the creative ingenuity involved in overcoming the artificial limits of the Production Code. “And then suddenly,” he writes, “I stopped in the middle of my lecture, and for a while could not continue. For I had realized, as I looked at the intent faces of the students, that I might well be engaged in closing off one of the few casual and free escape routes remaining to them; that I might be helping to inaugurate a new convention: namely, that one had not only to attend Hollywood movies but to understand and appreciate them.”

This readiness to consider the anxieties and suggestibilities of his audience is admirable in an educator, but it has nothing to do with the question of whether American movies actually deserve serious appreciation—which is the only question that matters to the film critic. True, Riesman is here describing an occasion on which he was performing a pedagogical as much as a critical task, but a tendency to confuse the two—or at least to overlook the differences between them—is evident in many of his essays on popular culture, and most conspicuously in his much criticized assertion that America is “one of the great cultures of history.” Movies and comic strips may certainly be “liberating” for isolated rural or ethnic minority groups, or even for would-be highbrows obsessed with fears of liking something uncertified by recognized cultural authorities, but their intrinsic aesthetic merits are a different matter altogether.

In another essay Riesman insists that young intellectuals ought not to be forced to feel ashamed of preferring Stephen Spender’s poetry to Dylan Thomas’s. One can sympathize with this observation: the thought of all the eager “culture vultures” now dutifully reading Thomas is depressing. But the job of the literary critic is to compare poems and arrive at a judgment of their relative merits, not to allay the guilt of potential readers of criticism. A word that inescapably springs to mind, I fear, when one considers Riesman’s constant concern with the reactions of his audience is—“other-directed.”



One great trouble with the role Riesman has elected to play is that in our present rapidly shifting climate of opinion new ideas become transformed into slogans and stereotypes almost overnight. Riesman has already received Time’s full treatment, which managed to reduce his three character types to cartoonable dimensions and assimilate his bland, questioning approach to American life to the Lucean version of the “new conservatism.” Moreover, as Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., has pointed out, the fact that we live in a pluralist society does not prevent others from listening to our messages intended for a particular audience and adapting what is overheard to serve their own quite different purposes. Thus Riesman has been embarrassed by having his strictures on progressive education and on the over-reactions of intellectuals to “McCarthyism” echoed in distorted form by professional opponents of public education and by egghead-baiters. If your aim is truth alone, then such a perversion of one’s criticisms can be ignored. But if you are alive to every twist and turn of audience response, and find your truth in that, then the response of unwanted audiences has to be considered too.

Awareness of society’s resonance at any given moment to particular ideological themes is undoubtedly a valuable asset to a social thinker. But a certain detachment, even to the point of stubborn blindness, may to some degree be necessary in order to rise above one’s times and place them in perspective on the broad canvas of history. The scientist must rely ultimately on the autonomy of his empirical method, the aesthete on his individual taste, and the moralist on his personal intuition of value. If one starts by listening to what everyone else is saying in order to correct or balance their partial visions, one risks becoming enmeshed in the very nets of ideas one wishes to escape. There must always be thinkers who can look at the world with a fresh innocence, cats to stare directly at the faces of kings, and children to exclaim at the nakedness of emperors.

Riesman’s prominence as a spokesman of the era is a sign that the social sciences have come of age in our culture. He is the first American sociologist to be given an altogether respectful hearing by representatives of the older intellectual disciplines. Some of his colleagues, cherishing the purist ideal of an autonomous and specialized social science, may find this distressing, but I think they will realize eventually that it has been to their advantage, too, as well as to that of the rest of us. Riesman’s role is that of a broker of ideas, a synthesizer of intellectual trends, and a demonstrator of the relevance of what others have said and thought to the lives we live “pressed against the knife-edge of the future.”

A decade from now, when his concepts and themes have lost the verisimilitude they possess in the climate of the 50’s, his work may look thoroughly dated. But his example will undoubtedly stimulate social scientists to broaden their interests and concerns. It is not accidental that Riesman calls himself a sociologist, nor that his professional training was not in sociology but in the humanities and law, for American sociology is just beginning to emerge from its parochialism of method and topic to emulate the old universalism that once marked the philosopher and man of letters. Riesman’s contribution to this development has been a considerable one.


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